Distance Must Be Maintained

We’re told this is temporary, a momentary suspension of normality, and in our hearts we sentimentalists all want to believe the streets will soon be filled once more with stoop dawdlers, grandmas pushing shopping carts, vested business bros with their phones on speaker, fleets of annoying schoolkids, boys and girls out on the prowl, the stench of weed and the cries of desire. (On second thought, let’s consign the business bros to the past.) But we all know the dream of a quick recovery is delusional, that our altered reality will last a year, maybe two.

We walk to escape the trauma of the pandemic, only to relive it all over again by walking.

Photographs by Aaron Timms.

On my way to the cemetery I now run around every morning, I pass a bodega, a strip of repair shops, a cluster of used car lots, and a laundromat called Ridgewood Bubbles. The bodega closed down a week ago. The garages, the car lots, and the laundromat are still holding on. The cemetery, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens, is one patch in a quilt of graveyards laid out on either side of the Jackie Robinson Parkway. As they race past, motorists take in a still pageant of the city’s forgotten dead, the headstones set against the towers of Manhattan on the horizon. I scan two, three, four blocks ahead of me as I walk up, checking for oncoming foot traffic, pedestrians darting out of side streets, lurkers ready to spring from behind car doors and apartment entrances. Every one of them gets a wide berth. Distance must be maintained.

Some are good at playing the six-foot separation game. Others range across the sidewalk with mazy disregard for the new conventions, two abreast, arms pumping, social-spatial awareness set to zero. I magnetize myself to walls or duck into the oncoming traffic whenever someone approaches in the opposite direction, pause to let older pedestrians pass whenever a sub-six foot collision course is looming, speed up, slow down, cross if things look emptier on the other side. Stripped of its innocence, the dart-and-weave common to the New York driver or the Manhattan pedestrian has been exported to every walking corner of the city. On the streets in Ridgewood, the Queens neighborhood where I live, other people are suddenly, surprisingly threatening—not quite enemies, but potential sources of deadly infection. This is a strange feeling everywhere, I imagine, but especially strange in New York, the ultimate kinetic city, designed for ease of circulation and defined by mobility. I’m walkin’ here! Unless you are too, in which case I’m probably walkin’ over there.

Every day I take this journey, threading the needle, refusing the siren call of surfaces, I’m reminded of something Norbert Elias wrote in The Civilizing Process, his multi-century history of the acculturation of manners and personality in Western Europe. Elias showed how, as European societies became more complex and economically sophisticated, the psychological habitus of everyday life was transformed, and new norms of civility and deference took hold. One of the arenas affected was interaction between strangers on the street. Think, Elias wrote,

of the country roads of a simple warrior society with a barter economy, uneven, unmetalled, exposed to damage from wind and rain. With few exceptions, there is very little traffic; the main danger which a person here has to fear from others is an attack by soldiers or thieves. When people look around them, scanning the trees and hills or the road itself, they do so primarily because they must always be prepared for armed attack, and only secondarily because they have to avoid collision. Life on the main roads of this society demands a constant readiness to fight, and free play of the emotions in defense of one’s life or possessions from physical attack.

I’ve always been fascinated by this passage and its portrait of a society in which the simple act of walking—perhaps the greatest pleasure of life in the city—was injected with deadly risk. Over time, as society became more differentiated and interdependent, the threat posed by passersby vanished, and the everyday combat stance of the pedestrian relaxed. In normal times people now circulate in public mostly without fear of each other. (In that “mostly” lies the caveat that for women, the poor, and people of color, the modern street often still contains more parts menace than promise. None of these groups enjoys the underlying freedom that makes an essay like this one possible: an obvious and enduring injustice of life in the city.) But these are not normal times, and while the pandemic has not quite taken us back to the place where moving about in public demands the “constant readiness to fight” of the pre-modern pedestrian—surely the wiser strategy these days is to respond to any building confrontation by running away—there’s a similar vigilance to permanent danger required on the streets of New York today. We walk to escape the trauma of the pandemic, only to relive it all over again by walking.

We’re told this is temporary, a momentary suspension of normality, and in our hearts we sentimentalists all want to believe the streets will soon be filled once more with stoop dawdlers, grandmas pushing shopping carts, vested business bros with their phones on speaker, fleets of annoying schoolkids, boys and girls out on the prowl, the stench of weed and the cries of desire. (On second thought, let’s consign the business bros to the past.) But we all know the dream of a quick recovery is delusional, that our altered reality will last a year, maybe two. Even when it returns, normality will never be quite so normal again. It’s possible to hope we will come out of all this with a renewed sense of the beauty and value of public space, of the common places that bring us together to enjoy each other’s company rather than buy things. But that hope seems forlorn at a moment when we’re still feeling through the opening act of the crisis. To say this is a public health crisis, a political crisis, a crisis of capitalism, a crisis of the very way in which we manage crises: all of that has been obvious for weeks. What’s becoming clearer is that this is also a crisis of tactility, a crisis of mobility, both physical and economic, and that the many ways we’ve come to understand the city—as a place of unfettered exploration—may not survive it.

New York, like most cities, is often conceptualized as a body: the big parks form the lungs of the metropolis, the expressways and avenues its arteries, the people its lifeblood. I prefer to think of Ridgewood as a condiment—a small splodge of mustard on the map of the five boroughs. The streets are lined with century-old three-story apartment blocks built of brick colored beige, bone, off-white, and ivory; straw, egg yolk, champagne, and custard. I’ve spent countless hours wandering these streets, enjoying the variations of yellow from building to building before launching myself into the city beyond for walks lasting hours, afternoons, and sometimes—usually when I’m trying to avoid a looming deadline—whole days.

As irritating as I’m finding myself as I commit these words to print (never boast about this type of stuff unless you’re in a national emergency), according to my iPhone I’ve averaged 8.9 miles a day for the past 12 months. That’s 16,469 steps, most of them given to solitary exploration of the city: across, say, the cement steppes of Maspeth and East Williamsburg, up through the needle of Manhattan Avenue and over the Pulaski Bridge into Long Island City, across the stately Queensboro, around the belly of midtown, back downtown, through the hectic sweaty strips of the East Village and the gentler grime below Houston, left onto the Williamsburg Bridge, Metropolitan into Bushwick Avenues, left onto Myrtle, then all the way back to Ridgewood; or down Halsey Street, through the mudcake terraces of Bed-Stuy, up Nostrand and onto the middle-European parade ground that is Eastern Parkway, over to the winged gates of Prospect Park, down 3rd Street, past Park Slope and Gowanus and non-topographical Hills called Cobble and Boerum, across the discount fantasyland of downtown Brooklyn, back into Williamsburg, onto Metropolitan, then home to the mother borough.

Samuel Johnson walked the streets of London to cure himself of depression. Vivian Gornick ranged across Manhattan to heal a “sore and angry heart.” I walk because I like to be entertained. And there is still no theater more engrossing, more squalid, more pathetic and more energetic than New York: the grandeur and intimacy of its streets, the fine wreckage of its faces. The city, despite gentrification, despite everything, still appears to me as Isabel Bolton put it three quarters of a century ago, in Do I Wake Or Sleep:

What a strange, what a fantastic city! And yet, and yet; there was something here that one experienced nowhere else on earth. Something one loved intensely. What was it? Crossing the streets—standing on the street corners with the crowds? What was it that induced this special climate of the nerves? . . . There was something—a peculiar sense of intimacy, friendliness, being here with all these people, and in this strange place. They brushed you by, like moths, like flowers, they brushed against your cheek, they touched your heart with tenderness and you felt yourself a part of the great flight and flutter—searching their faces, speculating about their dooms and destinies.

And yet, and yet: it doesn’t, because that city is now lost to us. How do we walk in the city, how do we relate the experience of walking in the city, once the city is no longer the place we knew? The literature of New York’s walkers is as vast as the city itself. What’s never been in question is the mobility essential to bearing witness, the free play of desire at the heart of the creative, perambulatory act, the lust for progress. The great walkers of New York have been ecstatic, effusive, enraptured, like Bolton, ambitious like Whitman and Crane, convalescent and resurgent like Gornick, lachrymose and watchful like Teju Cole, droll and unmoved like Gary Indiana: emotional predicates that no longer hold now that the city is defined not by its life-giving force but its vulnerability, its fragility, its demobilization. Whereas previously the limit of urban exploration was a function of the individual’s free time and physical endurance, now it’s limited by the depth of anxiety. Across culture the story is the same. Already almost the entire historical catalog of film and TV documenting the story of New York looks jarring, absurd. Even the interior dramas of New York, like Seinfeld, are somehow traumatizing, like a taunt from a lost world in which people moved without inhibition from outside to inside, building to building, room to room. Opening those doors, Kramer never knew how good he had it.

The only cultural solace, for me at least, has come from an unlikely source. In recent days, I’ve found myself rewatching, and at times seemingly reliving, scenes from Uncut Gems, the last great film released before the curtain came down on New York street life. Uncut Gems is, above all, a film about the interplay between desire and mobility. The opening scene finds Howard Ratner pacing the streets of Manhattan’s Diamond District with his phone pressed to his ear. “Yussi, I’m a block away,” he says. “I’m walking already, I’m walking.” The rest of the film unfolds in a state of perpetual motion, as the portrait of a man simultaneously on the hunt (for wealth, betting success, sex) and on the run (from his creditors, from his past). There are entries, exits, passages, transports, and no repose. We see Howard on 70th and First (“What the fuck is he doing there?” “He’s walking”), we see him walking into a pawn shop, walking into Nino’s trattoria to place bets with his bookie, walking into the lobby of the building that houses the auctioneer he hopes will land him a big payday for the film’s eponymous gem. In the final act of the film he walks to his death. Howard does not stroll the city in the bemused, relaxed, spritely or invigorated manner of a New York boulevardier. His walking is nerve-shredding, hurried, panicky, and paranoid. For anyone squeezed into a New York apartment right now and contemplating a quick, fretful scuttle to the store, the picture that emerges from all of this is, as they say, very relatable.

The film’s most emotionally resonant scene finds Howard at his family Passover dinner, across the table from Arno, the loan shark brother-in-law whose thugs will later account for them both. “Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals,” Howard intones, leading the recitation of the Ten Plagues as everyone spills a drop of wine into their plate at the enumeration of each fresh curse. The trauma that hangs over the film is the trauma of the biblical plague, and the massive migration it triggered. Under the shadow of the Exodus, pursued by Arno’s hitmen, Howard is condemned to keep moving. “In every generation everyone is obligated to see themselves as if they themselves came out of Egypt,” the Haggadah instructs.

Howard’s walking reminds me of nothing so much as the strung-out pacing of Thomas Bernhard’s typical narrator, sent spare through the streets of Vienna in a state still stained by the Holocaust. Walking, in both instances, simultaneously mirrors and deflects some larger disaster. The streets are both a hazard and an escape. Which is why these walkers, despite their terror, achieve a kind of charisma. Their walking, though propelled by anxiety, is not without joy. Not everyone in New York today has the luxury of sheltering in place, of course: messengers, delivery people, and other precarious workers continue to move through the city as a matter of economic survival. But for those of us fortunate enough to enjoy the option of isolation and still able to leave the house, this is how we walk now: as a way of reclaiming the spaces that most endanger us, as an expression of our collective trauma, as a coping mechanism. New York has become a city through which we move without quite going anywhere. A city through which we are afraid to move, but move all the same. Our sense of direction is lost. The virus closes in. Just as for Howard Ratner, the only release is to keep walking.

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